With a new adaptation of the popular ’90s TV series Are You Afraid Of The Dark? airing on Nickelodeon, we go back to the show that started it all.
The show revolved around a group of teenagers who referred to themselves as The Midnight Society. Every week, at a secret location in the woods, one member would tell a scary story to the rest of the group, some of which were based on public domain fairy tales, short stories or urban legends.
This got us thinking. Are You Afraid Of The Dark? always felt like a slightly heavier version of Goosebumps, even its color palette felt darker, and often times an episode would have a lasting effect on younger minds with their emphasis on creepy creatures, monsters and ghosts (plus a lot of dolls and clowns!). So we decided to run through all of the series’ 91 episodes, so that’s the show’s initial run from August, 1992, – April, 1996, and its revival series from 1999 2000, and choose the 13 creepiest just to bring back those shivers down your spine.
13. “The Tale of the Frozen Ghost”
Original Air Date: August 14, 1993
A spoiled rich kid and his babysitter, played by Melissa Joan Hart, head off to his aunt’s house in the country where there’s a ghost haunting the place during the cold weather. The two kids investigate a family mystery while helping a small, frozen ghost boy. An episode with some pretty effective creep-outs, especially the appearance of the titular frozen ghost, the story also has a lite Cabin-In-The-Woods vibe aided by its diffused, earthy color palette.
12. “The Tale of the Quicksilver”
Original Air Date: April 2, 1994
The story involves a pair of brothers who move into a new house. The younger brother gets sick and soon discovers that there is a spirit that is draining his life. The titular villain is a ghost by the name of Quicksilver who lives inside the walls of the old home. Younger brother Doug getting sick and elder brother Aaron having strange dreams about the dead twin sister of one of his classmates (feels a little Shining-esque), this is a ghost story with a lot of terrifying aspects, younger viewers notwithstanding. The house is later discovered to be built atop a cemetery and Quicksilver is acting out in typical Poltergeist fashion. The raggedy clothes that drape over the effectively made-up Quicksilver also showed Are You Afraid Of The Dark?‘s pension for getting a lot of scares out of their modest budget.
11. “The Tale of The Midnight Madness”
Original Air Date: June 26, 1993
When Pete and Katie happily agree to a deal for the creepy Dr. Vink to guarantee a packed house at their failing, old movie theater, thing go from bad to much worse. A vampire creature bearing more than a passing resemblance to Nosferatu literally walks off the movie screen and enter the real world. Terrorizing Pete and Katie with his wordless threats and elongated fingers, this episode felt like a real love letter to horror movies of yesteryear and a great use of location (creepy old movie theaters have great atmosphere). But above all, the episode’s villain was a convincing and accurate Nosferatu.
10. “The Tale of The Dark Music”
Original Air Date: October 24, 1992
Basements hold such a primal fear among children and as bullied kid Andy discovers in this episode, there is a very good reason for that. Andy discovers there is some sort of monster living in his basement that is summoned by music. The monster grants Andy some wishes if Andy continues to feed it, satisfying its appetite for human flesh. That’s when Andy remembers his bratty little sister and things go pretty dark from there. One of the more unsettling aspects of this episode comes from the appearance of a slinking, floating life-size doll that invites you to play.
9. “The Tale of Many Faces”
Original Air Date: June 4, 2000
The most latter of the episodes on this list, “The Tale Of Many Faces” premiered during the series last season but showed it could still pack an unsettling scare or two. Emma wants to be a model and Madame Visage thinks she has the most beautiful face, so Emma uses the creepy Madame’s beautifying powder, before realizing that the menacing figure is out to steals girls’ faces forever. Touching on the notions of young girls self-esteem issues coupled with the appearance of smooth, no nostrils, closed-eyed servants, this episode was a latter-day gem that really brought a classic sense of suburban Gothic horror back into the household, and many adolescents were probably first exposed to Elisha Cuthbert around this time as well, playing Megan in the Midnight Society.
8. “The Tale of the Crimson Clown”
Original Air Date: April 9, 1994
The first of three episodes on this list with a creepy clown, “The Tale Of The Crimson Clown” has a decidedly less physically intimidating painted-up baddie but nevertheless, clowns are a childhood horror staple. The episode revolves around the titular evil doll, which comes to life to teach a pretty bratty kid a lesson. This is still a haunting figure from the series, one that mixes kiddie torture with lesson teaching. There almost seems to be an air of Jigsaw to the Crimson Clown.
7. “The Tale of the Super Specs”
Original Air Date: September 19, 1992
Taking a page out of John Carpenter’s They Live, “The Tale Of The Super Specs” revolves around a pair of glasses from Sardo’s Magic Shop (many episodes would begin in some way in the no-good shop). Sardo himself warns of the traumatizing effects these Super Specs may have on the wearer, but things go from wary to otherworldy as May Beth begins to see things that aren’t really there, including creepy figures cloaked all in black. This cosmic episode was quite literally haunting as a younger viewer. The titular specs were cursed with “second sight” and the door to the alternate dimension they open begins to feel a lot like the familiar territory covered in the documentary The Nightmare. The ending to this episode also feels ultimately unique as its protagonist doesn’t come out alive.
6. “The Tale of the Shiny Red Bicycle”
Original Air Date: August 28, 1993
Mike is haunted by visions of a childhood friend he couldn’t save in a tragic accident. The angst-ridden Mike begins to feel like he is unwinding as he is pursued by his ghostly friend…and his shiny red bicycle. The small town setting and decidedly softer tone made this episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark? feel decidedly more poignant. The tone conjures the same feelings that Stephen King might illicit in aspects of his novels like IT. In the end, this episode also feels like a pointed metaphor for how adolescents deal with guilt and grief.
5. “The Tale of the Dollmaker”
Original Air Date: February 5, 1994
Porcelain dolls have this innate way of creeping us out. Ever visit your grandma’s and find she just has a room full of dolls? No. Even if you haven’t, there is something incredibly primal about the creepiness of “The Tale Of The Dollmaker.” Susan has mysteriously disappeared when Melissa, excited to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle in the county, arrives and finds out the bad news. While visiting Susan’s old house and the dusty attic (because of course), Melissa discovers a dollhouse that bears a striking resemblance to Susan’s now-abandoned home. One night while returning to the attic, Melissa finds out that Susan has in fact been turned into a doll and must enter the dollhouse to save her friend. The image that most find hard to forget is the half-doll Susan who’s hands are beginning to turn porcelain and fall off her body. This episode also probably made you second guess your toys.
4. “The Tale Of Laughing In The Dark”
Original Air Date: August 22, 1992
Only the second episode in the series and already Are You Afraid Of The Dark? scarred a generation of kids who probably have an incredibly bad impression of clowns thanks to Zeebo and Pennywise (from the 1990 miniseries version of IT). When a bratty kid steals the clown’s nose, Zeebo decides to hunt him down. The sparse appearances of the cigar-smoking clown is probably one of the reasons the episode is so effective. When Zeebo begins terrorizing the now-not-so-bratty Josh at his home and making threatening phone calls, with cigar smoke appearing under doorways, this episode really makes you feel like the circus never lets you leave. The clown gets his nose back in the end, but the damage to our psyches was already done.
3. “The Tale of The Lonely Ghost”
Original Air Date: August 29, 1992
Nerdy girl Amanda is staying with her aunt while her parents are away. One night, Amanda’s bully of a cousin refuses to let her hang out unless she spends a night in the supposedly haunted house next door. It’s here that we come across the titular lonely ghost: a deaf girl in need of her mother. A very simple design, the ghost almost resembles what we would later see come out of Japan in films like Ju-On and Ringu. This ghost’s appearance is a startlingly simple one, and even though she doesn’t end up being malevolent it’s the build-up with set pieces such as writing words backward on walls (like a mirror) that really sets this apart. If there any real antagonist in this episode, it isn’t the ghost but Beth, the older cousin and bully because, seriously, she’s a real piece of work.
2. “The Tale of The Ghastly Grinner”
Original Air Date: December 3, 1994
The third, and by far scariest, clown-related episode came from the Are You Afraid Of The Dark?‘s fourth season. The titular Ghastly Grinner is the stuff of children’s nightmare, truly. With his yellow face, and matching teeth, this baddie comes to life after a comic book is thrown into a microwave (yeah it’s not great but it was ’94 and for kids). The Ghastly Grinner causes people to become cackling messes who regurgitate blue slime. This guy would be The Joker’s best friend. The episode’s protagonist, Ethan, eventually tries to take matters into his own hands by creating a new comic book to defeat the Grinner, but ends up somehow getting trapped inside his own comic and once again comes face-to-face with the Grinner! It’s incredibly Nickelodeon okay’d this, but its freakshow aesthetic and bonkers villain really opened the floodgates on a generation’s nightmares.
1. “The Tale of Dead Man’s Float”
Original Air Date: October 7, 1995
An uncharacteristically un-PG baddie, the waterlogged zombie is a vicious and gory mess, one that feels like something out of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. It’s also, by and large, the scariest, most visceral villain to the creepiest episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark? Zeke is a science nerd who never learned to swim. Chloe is the pretty swim star in need of tutoring. The two pair up to help each other out, but when they choose the school’s hidden, boarded up lap pool for Zeke’s lessons, they learn why no one’s been treading those waters for 40 years. Responsible for an entire generation’s irrational fear of public swimming pools and a rare bit of surreal graveyard horror, “The Tale Of The Dead Man’s Float”remains a cornerstone of the show’s history. It also marked the beginning of the end of the show’s initial run before it’s revival about three years later, but they started their final season with a bang and continued to showcase richly designed monsters throughout its fifth season.
Did we miss an episode you remember fondly, one that terrified you during those grade school years? Let us know over on the Official Grizzly Bomb FB page. The Are You Afraid Of The Dark? limited series is scheduled to begin airing on October 11, 2019.
Images: Nickelodeon, Viacom